Podcast: Wellness Support For Students - Steve Barkley

Podcast: Wellness Support For Students

Wellness Support For Students

Schools face increasing needs to respond to student wellness concerns, often with limited staff and time. Maria Barrera, the founder and CEO of Clayful, shares how her organization is working to respond with an app that through text links students with a wellness coach. She responds to some of the most asked questions about the strategy.

Find out more about Clayful at: clayful.co/ponders

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Steve [Intro]: 00:00 Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud Podcast. As instructional coaches and school leaders, you have a challenge to guide continuous teacher growth that promotes student success. This podcast looks to support you with strategies from our experienced guests and insights that I’ve gathered across many years. I’m thrilled you’re here. Thanks for listening.

Steve: 00:31 Wellness support for students. Maria Barrera, the founder, and CEO of Clayful is our podcast guest today. Clayful provides students with an app connection to wellness support, both in and out of school from trained coaches. I’ve asked Maria to share what she sees as students’ wellness needs and how her work at Clayful is addressing that need. Welcome, Maria.

Maria: 01:01 Thank you so much for having me.

Steve: 01:03 So I’m wondering for starters, you want talk a little bit about what you see as students’ wellness needs today?

Maria: 01:12 Yeah, I mean, I can start with what the CDC has really come out and said. They’ve done a ton of research on the topic, both like pre pandemic and post, and I’m gonna just mention some of the stats here and then I’ll tell you how those are connected to the stuff that we see on a day-to-day basis. So in 2021, almost half of high schoolers, 44%, reported feeling sad or hopeless during the past year, and that’s up from 26% in 2009. It’s a huge increase in a little bit over 10 years. From there, the recent report that they published said that nearly three in five, so 57% of girls felt persistently sad or hopeless, which is double that of boys, and that’s a 60% increase and the highest level reported. So a lot of the conversations we have is that there’s been mental health challenges like throughout the world, throughout us existing, and the pandemic really heightened a lot of those and like it opened up a Pandora’s box, like we can no longer contain them.

Maria: 02:16 And they’re now, let’s say like infiltrating their way into all these different places, schools being one of them, and affecting our
communities in a way that they never really had before. If you look at the increase in suicidality and kids ending up in the ER on a day-to-day basis, if you look at the instances of gun violence in schools in particular in the US, there’s these feelings of sadness, of hopelessness, of loneliness, of anxiety, are really presenting themselves in extreme and acute ways. And we see that every day with the schools that we’re working with. What’s interesting for us is that we are, and we’ll talk more about the work that we’re doing, but because we support across a spectrum of care, we’re helping students not just when they reach that breaking point, but rather before then.

Maria: 03:18 So what we see are the precursors to a lot of these very extreme data points. Things like the academic stress that kids put on themselves, the bullying and the fights with friends that happen both online and offline, and the impact of social media and challenges at home and how those get presented in and affect kids’ day-to-day lives. So we really spend a bulk of our time there in the things before the breaking point and our goal is to give kids the resources, coping skills, strategies to manage those so that they don’t get to that breaking point. Because at the end of the day, the stats keep on continuing to increase and our point of view is that to really end the crisis, we can’t just attack and be responsive, we need to help before they ever get to that point.

Steve: 04:13 So schools have been hit with the need to respond without increased funding, without increased staff at the same time that communities are looking for schools to increase student learning across all the academic areas.

Maria: 04:35 I mean, schools have to handle it all. We love them for that. I mean, there’s different states that yes, are providing specific funding and of course the pandemic relief funds are able to be leveraged for the recovery programs. A lot of those school districts we talked to and work with were leveraging those funds to hire more counselors and get more people into their buildings. And some of them were able to, but a lot of them weren’t because the goal of providing more mental health support with mental health professionals in the building means you have to get those people in the building. And it’s at a time where the mental health profession is seeing a dirth of providers and the demand is so high that the existing providers can’t meet it. It’s really hard to fill that gap.

Steve: 05:35 My wife’s an elementary counselor so she’s got 300+ students with 1 counselor addressing them.

Maria: 05:48 That’s a lot. I mean, the American Society of School Counselors, their recommendation is 250 students per counselor and most states
don’t meet that. There’s districts we work with that have 750 students per a counselor and you can just imagine, I mean, talking to your wife and seeing her day, imagine that if that number doubled or tripled.

Steve: 06:12 So with Clayful, you’ve taken an approach to use technology to respond. So why don’t you give folks a description of the process that you’re offering.

Maria: 06:26 Yeah. We are really thinking about leveraging technologies in humans to provide the support that kids need and really to meet them where they’re at. If you think about today’s teenager, they’re used to being on their phones, they’re used to chatting with their friends online, they’re used to Googling things when they have a question, they’re already sort of living their lives with this device as an extension of themselves. So why don’t we provide mental health support through that as well? And right now, going back to these schools trying to try to adjust the crisis by adding more people, one, they’re not able to, and two, even when they do, they, the people get sort of capped out with the high security needs cases, and then everyone else doesn’t get support. And even if they are let’s say, comfortable enough or vulnerable to go into the room, the counselor’s office, it takes a while to get there.

Maria: 07:30 Crossing the boundary of like, okay, I’m gonna go into this office, can be a really scary thing for people. I know that was a really scary thing for me. And our goal is to really decrease all the friction possible but make it as easy as possible for a kid to reach out and say like, oh, hey, there’s something I wanna talk about. And it doesn’t need to be a big deal. It doesn’t need to be a crisis point. It doesn’t need to be like you’re at a breaking point, but rather it’s like, oh, I have a really a test that I’m really stressed about tomorrow. I wanna talk to someone about that. Or my friend posted something mean about me on Instagram and I don’t know how to have that conversation with them.

Steve: 08:10 So when the student has the need, walk us through what does the student do and how does Clayful respond?

Maria: 08:18 So when we roll out with the school, every student gets an account. So right away, every student has access through their school
email and they can log-in both through a personal device or their school issued device. So equity and access is really important to us, we want make sure that students can access it regardless of whether they have a device at home or not. When they want talk to someone, it’s all on demand. So they don’t have to schedule an appointment for Wednesday at 11:00 AM and miss class, but rather they can feel the thing and then right away get connected to a coach within 60 seconds. So immediate support. Imagine if your wife had that while she’s helping another student, if the student that needed help in that moment could get that support right away.

Steve: 09:08 She does have them three and four deep sometime in the waiting chairs.

Maria: 09:14 Exactly. Even they could get support while they’re waiting and have another perspective, be able to sort of practice what they might
say, think about what their emotions are. Imagine how much more impactful the conversation with your wife would be if they already came sort of prepped. So that’s at the core of it. They can reach out and then through that conversation, get all these tools or just like get someone that listens to them, someone who vent to, someone that won’t judge them. That’s a big deal.

Steve: 09:47 You’re using the term conversation, that’s text conversation, correct?

Maria: 09:50 It’s all chat-based. Yeah. So they’re chatting back and forth, exchanging gifts every now and then, and emojis, and lots of
conversations happen during the school day. So they’ll be, especially at lunch, actually, a lot of kids come in during the lunchtime whether it’s because they’re lonely and don’t have anyone to talk to or because there’s something coming up at school that they wanna talk through. So with all that, they can have the conversation, get the skills, take those skills back, sometimes share with their friends, and then once they’re done, they’re done. And they can come back whenever they want, either to continue the conversation about the thing that they came in about or to talk about something new. So always sort of on demand for them. And the student is a driver of the conversation, which is really important for us. We wanna really empower our kids to figure out what is going on for them, figure out what the best strategies and paths are for them. So we say like, our coaches don’t give advice. We’ll help you, we’ll guide you, but we don’t give advice.

Steve: 10:55 Talk a little bit about who your coaches are, the people that are respoding.

Maria: 11:00 Yes, that’s one of the questions we get. So coaches are pretty much in two buckets. One, they’re former educators. So people who
have been working with kids their whole lives, really love and get a lot of fulfillment from that, but may or may not be in the classroom or in a school building anymore. So that’s one bucket. And the second one is mental health professionals. And some of them are licensed counselors, licensed social workers, and some of them are working to getting their license. What’s really important about both of those buckets is they all have to go through our prep proprietary training. So we’ve created a training that’s all CBT, DBT, ACT based, and it’s structured to provide the best strategies that can be leveraged in through this medium. If you think about when you’re chatting with someone via text, you don’t know what their body language is. You can’t see certain things about them. So what are the strategies that are the most effective through this medium? That’s what we focus on. And we also focus a lot on relatable language and what are the acronyms the kids are using? What are the emojis that they’re using? Like, don’t send that emoji, send this one. Emojis have hidden meanings.

Maria: 12:10 So that’s part of the training too, because again, meeting kids where they’re at is really, really important. And getting them to open up and feel comfortable and building that rapport is part of being able to have an impact. So our training is based on all that. Before coaches are ever trained even, they go through a six step interview process, all the background checks you can think of, of course. And then once they go through the training, that’s when they start doing simulations. And then once they pass those simulations, we continue, they’re able to start coaching. What’s really important though is that the training doesn’t just stop there. We continue on a weekly basis to provide more skills and more training. Some of it is situational. Like we were working with the school in Michigan after the shooting in Michigan State happened that a lot of the kids there had siblings.

Maria: 13:07 So we talk about, okay, how do you support kids through grieving? How do you support the kids through this fear? So it might be more current event based, others might be more strategy based. It’s like, okay, hey, we noticed a lot of you guys are apologizing when kids share feelings with you. It’s, we can’t apologize because it makes kids feel shameful and it makes them feel like they should be apologizing for feeling upset or feeling angry. Here’s different sort of sentence starters you can use instead. So it varies depending on sort of that week and those week’s needs. But what’s really special is that we’re taking the actual activity that’s happening on the platform, analyzing that, and then building the training in response to that.

Steve: 13:54 So you’re in a position to be both seeing what individual coaches are doing in their responses as well as catching overall patterns that then guides you as to what’s the next step to work on?

Maria: 14:11 Exactly. And that’s sort of the second stool or leg of the stool for us – it’s the data piece. So we realized that with all these kids coming in and talking to us, we were able to discern some pretty significant patterns for each school site. So, as an example, one of the middle schools we were working with, we noticed that in the first couple of weeks of working with them, their kids were talking a lot about academic pressures and feeling a ton of pressure that the teachers were putting on them. And when we met with the principal, she was so surprised, , she’s like, what do you mean? Like, they show up, they don’t care. They’re just chilling. And it was this really great empathy building moment. We’re like, oh wait, like they actually do care and they’re acting out in this way because the pressure is so high, not because they don’t care.

Maria: 15:00 And this is just like, imagine the impact that that can have on the teacher and how they might frame things differently, how they might help students differently now that they know, okay, they really do care, right? Because every educator gets frustrated when the kids don’t seem to care. But knowing that it’s actually the opposite can have a really big impact. So that’s the second piece. And we do bimonthly meetings with school site leaders so that they understand the cures, the trends, and then we realized that telling them what the problems are isn’t good enough. We should also tell them how to address them. So we started creating content that is responsive to those needs specifically. So things like, we see kids that are feeling there’s a lot of bullying going on.

Maria: 15:45 So how do you work with bullies? There’s a lot of kids that can’t go to sleep. So sleep hygiene is really poor. So how do we support them with your strategies that you can use to go to sleep and don’t use your device 30 minutes before. Things like that. And those things are then taught to the whole school, not just to the kids who opt in. So during an advisory period, during a homeroom, every kid will see it, will have access to it. And then that way, they get prompted of, oh, I could talk to Clayful about this either now or later and it creates this sort of cycle of one, wellness where they’re learning these strategies, two, awareness so that they can reach out for help and that like, hey, here’s another tool that’s there for you, and three, we’re using the same tools across the different touchpoints. So then over time, they’re exercising the same muscle and start to hopefully become their own coaches. Gotcha.

Maria: 16:44 It’s that that’s really where the power comes in. And then, one of the funny unexpected value pops has been that we send the weekly journal every week and teachers do them and they’re like, hey I’m just testing it for my students like wink, wink, , they’re doing it for themselves, right? So we’re like Trojan horsing these tools into their lives too. One of them is saying, she’s like, oh, I shared it with my husband because he doesn’t know how to take an apology and it was a journal on how to apologize. So there’s some really fun, unexpected positive consequences that end up having a halo effect in the community too.

Steve: 17:28 So are your coaches in a position to identify a student who needs more than just the coaching response and then connect to the
school with that?

Maria: 17:42 Definitely. That’s a big part of what we do. We have very robust protocols depending on the need. So you can think about – we call it code three. Code three is the most intense, imminent harm to sell for others. And in that case, we can literally call the school to initiate a lockdown or to do an in-person wellness check if it’s during school hours. If it’s not during school hours, we will call an emergency agency on file to get the student support. That’s why it’s so important that we know who the student is, that they sign in with an account. It’s not just like, a number that they’re texting anonymously. So that one’s really important. And then code two is more child protective services. So things like child abuse, neglect and abandonment, and we’ll make the report for the school too.

Maria: 18:31 So we really see ourselves as an extension of the team because we can then say, hey, we’ve made this report. Here’s the student, here’s how you can best support them and be partners in that work. So the schools say like, great, thank you for checking in with them now and relay any important information back to us that they can share. Because we’re not clinical, we can share a little bit more than they are able to. Because we’re sort of mandated via FERPA and COPA, not HIPAA, so we can share details of like, hey, this kid is self-harming, this kid is, is experiencing extreme bullying in a way that allows us to truly be a school partner without sort of breaking any privacy laws.

Steve: 19:17 So what are some of the findings that you’ve that you’ve gathered so far and how does that influencing where you’re looking to head?

Maria: 19:29 The most exciting one is just the level of usage. I mean, I started this because I wanted to reach kids like me who would never have
walked into a counselor’s office and we see 30 to 40% of kids using it in the first couple months. Our goal is definitely to get to a hundred. And I’ve just been so impressed and excited by the number of kids coming in and talking about real stuff that’s going on in their lives. It’s very clear that this is something that is needed and that makes our team feel really really good because it’s clear the impact that we’re having. After every chat we asked kids for feedback and one of them a couple weeks ago said, thank you for what you’re doing because this stuff is life changing and lifesaving.

Maria: 20:23 And I just started crying. It’s so impactful and we’ll see so many of these conversations, so much of the feedback coming in and it’s so incredibly articulate and thoughtful and empathetic. And I think just seeing that when kids are given kindness and empathy and care and love, they give that back to you in a really beautiful way is like, that’s been the most impactful part. We also do – obviously we have metrics and we track both like usage and impact metrics on the road. One of the usage metrics we look at is by demographics. So we see 45% of our chatterers are boys. And going back to that access and equity piece, it’s like, okay, great, we’re reaching a demographic that wouldn’t typically be the one that’s like raising their hand for help, right? So that’s really, really powerful. And we are also, going back to the escalations, it’s being able to identify kids that weren’t even on school’s radars.

Steve: 21:38 I’m having this strange thought in my mind that, how many of the conversations are about the student’s phone and apps being the problem and it’s like you’ve turned around and taken it and see the phone and the app as part of the solution.

Maria: 22:00 Yeah, so this probably is very informed by my time at Nearpod. So I was part of the founding team at Nearpod and we took, as iPads and Chromebooks were making their way into the classroom and teachers didn’t know what to do with them, we looked at those devices and were like, these are incredible learning device devices. Let’s turn them into something where kids can know that they can learn with them, that they’re not just for gaming, they’re not just for community, they’re for learning too. And giving them that mindset shift is really important because then they see that device as a completely different tool. So we see it the same way. And you know, of course there’s a lot of things that we still have to work through as a, as a community in terms of what does social media engagement look like and good digital citizenship and how to not be mean to people online just because you’re not saying it to their face.

Maria: 22:51 There’s a lot of work to do there still. And if we can teach them to use this in a positive way, imagine the impact, right? I was talking to a school counselor yesterday who said, the kids are going to Google and like find these sketchy chat rooms anyway. Why not give them a place that’s actually safe and vetted where they can have these conversations and not feel judged? Still has the same value, right? It’s still sort of, you’re not gonna run into him at the store, someone that doesn’t know you. But it’s safe and we are also very straight. Like we don’t ask you for your address, we don’t ask you for your name. We’re trying to instill these good practices. Don’t share private information with strangers online and we’re here to support you and like this community cares about you.

Steve: 23:43 So I’m wondering, before we close out here, I’m guessing there’s some most often asked questions that come your way that I didn’t think to ask you. So I want give you an open spot here to stick any of those in.

Maria: 23:58 You asked the top two which are who are the coaches and what are the escalation protocols.

Maria: 24:05 The third one is really how hard is this to roll out? And at a time where schools are overwhelmed and understaffed and there’s a lot
going on, we really see this as an added tool to both teachers and counselors tool belts. Because like we were talking earlier, the ratios are not where we want them to be and our educators are carrying a lot, whether it’s the emotional baggage and like intensity oz the things that students bring into the classroom with them, or whether it’s just the need, the desire to want meet with every student knowing that you can’t. The most often thing I get told is like, I wish I could clone myself. I’m like, I wish you could too. But here’s the next thing.

Steve: 24:54 When you roll it out, do you prep somebody at the school that does the presentation to the students?

Maria: 25:02 Yeah. Right now we are actually going in person. So my co-founder’s actually at a school site right now doing a PD for teachers in
middle school and high school. So the teachers are the ones who roll it out and we give them all the materials needed. It’s really just a video and here’s how you set up the account. And from there they will assign a specific day, typically during an advisory period, to roll it out to the whole student body. And what’s good about that is that because everyone gets an account, there’s no sort of like, oh wait, you wanna talk to…that’s lame. Everyone’s just like, okay, there’s this new thing and it breaks down that barrier because kids are – they’re judgy and they care, so they have a lot of social capital to protect.

Maria: 25:51 So it’s important to think about that and the rollout and make it as seamless and it’s like not a big deal as possible. But all of that happens through all these materials that we’ve created. We have all the parent communication we have posters that were put up in schools, right? So there’s all these different ways to help the school implement and make the most of it. And interestingly, the schools that we’ve worked with have worked with multiple partners because they had a need and they’re looking at different solutions and the feedback we get is that we’re the easiest to implement. So we take that. And I think it’s because our team is former educators. We know what it takes to run a classroom, we know what it takes to run a school and that empathy goes a really long way because we can design for that system.

Steve: 26:41 Well let folks know how they can follow up with you.

Maria: 26:45 Yes. We created a little link for your community. So if you wanna learn more, go to clayful.co/ponders. Made it super simple and
we’ll put that in the show notes as well. And then feel free to reach out. We can get help on a call, give you more information. We’re really, really excited to expand the impact and are looking for innovative school leaders who know that there’s a need and are excited to try something new.

Steve: 27:18 Well, I’m glad that you connected with me and that I had a chance to to share this message out with others. I’ll look forward to
following up with you and making the new discoveries that that you’re making along the way. I know that it’s really important work that needs to be done right now.

Maria: 27:40 Oh, I’m sure we’ll be learning a lot over the next year so we’ll be back.

Steve: 27:45 Okay. Have a great day.

Maria: 27:47 Thank you.

Steve [Outro]: 27:50 Thanks for listening folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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